My mom’s old Compaq has been sitting on a desk alongside her new Mac for several months now. I promised to clear her files and get rid of it as soon as I found a local recycler. It was the same process I went through last year when I replaced my five-year-old Sony VAIO, a computer that seemed archaic at the time. We’re just two of the many people who accumulate electronics and purchase new ones every time something goes wrong or it’s “about time” to upgrade.
A production structure that revolves around creating one-and-done parts that are too expensive to fix and too passé to try is a fairly common concept for manufacturers. Planned obsolescence has resulted in cluttered landfills, and recyclers are not guaranteed to profit from them if processing costs outweigh material sales. It’s a problem that has given rise to a surprisingly unconventional black market – the sale and transport of electronic waste to undeveloped countries.
Electronic waste, or “e-waste” for short, is an informal term that applies to electronic products that have been discarded by their owners. Among other things, it refers to computers, TVs, music players, phones, and kitchen appliances. E-waste typically contains hazardous materials that are linked to various environmental and health problems, but some discarded electronics can be refurbished or dismantled to retrieve precious metals.
Regulated U.S. recycling isn’t what you’d call a booming business, and the process of product disassembly isn’t safe, easy or cheap. It costs less to pay middlemen to handle business deals overseas than it does to invest in processing equipment that would make recycling safer for employees and the environment. Rather than processing everything themselves, recyclers often send their e-waste to China, India, Pakistan, Ghana, and other countries where labor costs are low and environmental laws aren’t well enforced. With little oversight or federal laws preventing recyclers from moving e-waste abroad, shipping used electronics is fairly easy to get away with.
The U.S. is the largest producer of e-waste in the world. According to a 2010 press release by the United Nations Environment Programme, we throw away approximately 3 million tons of it each year. The U.S. is also the only developed country that has not ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty created to stop the transfer of hazardous waste from developed nations to impoverished ones. On the list of 179 states that ratified the agreement (180 after Afghanistan’s ratification enters into force this June), the U.S. stands out like a sore thumb as a missing party. Recyclers who dump their e-waste overseas often do it under false pretenses, claiming that electronics and electronic scraps will still be recycled.
But the U.S. recycling businesses that pay fair wages and abide by safety regulations bear little resemblance to the low paying, unsafe recycling processes used by developing nations. China has outlawed the import of e-waste, but the lax regulations keep the underground business thriving. The Chinese government turns a blind eye to the trade, in part because so many of its citizens are dependent on it. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), an organization dedicated to stopping toxic trade, approximately 80 percent of e-waste collected for recycling in the U.S. is shipped to China, frequently to worksites in Guiyu.
The region of Guiyu is one of the largest e-waste hubs of the world, employing over 150,000 men, women, and children to manually process electronics. Hundreds of small shelters in the area specialize in dismantling different device components. Some people work with circuit boards, some with wires, and others process plastics. Their livelihoods depend on getting it down to a science.
E-waste workers in Guiyu spend their time breaking apart used goods and picking out the most important materials. Making sure that noxious fumes are trapped and toxic fragments are handled safely is not the priority, and the workers do not always know the risks involved. Residents log 16-hour days disassembling products with little to no protective equipment and can make as little as $1.50 per day taking products apart.
Workers extract precious metals from various electronic parts, but circuit boards are particularly valuable. They begin taking the boards apart by de-soldering them, a process that involves heating them over grills to take out attached pieces. They place reusable electronic chips in one bucket, and further separate the rest to retrieve silver, gold and other materials of worth. Used metals can later be melted, sold, and made into jewelry, flatware and car parts. Once there’s little left, the nearly cleared circuit boards are burned again or soaked in acid baths to retrieve remains.
Residents who burn equipment and use acid baths are exposed to dioxin, lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and mercury, toxins that have been linked to various health and environmental problems. Reportsreleased by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have shown that lead found in solder, CRT monitor glass and batteries can impair the nervous and reproductive systems, and the cadmium from semiconductor chips can damage the kidneys. Workers who are exposed to mercury after handling circuit board switches, cell phones and flat screen monitors also put themselves at risk for tremors and memory loss. Not all hazardous e-waste can be recycled, and what remains is often melted or dumped along the roads and river ditches. You won’t find the photos on a postcard.
One dumping incident made headlines in 2012 when executives of a Colorado-based recycling firm were found guilty of mail and wire fraud, environmental crimes, and smuggling and obstruction after selling their e-waste overseas. Brandon Richter and Tor Olson of Executive Recycling Inc. lied to residents by claiming that electronics they collected would be safely recycled inside the U.S. They made over $1.8 million dollars by selling e-waste, including toxic TV and monitor components that must be approved for shipment by the EPA.
Dumping incidents such as this have caused several environmental problems overseas. According to reportsfrom Chinese Shantou University, the air in Guiyu contains the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Air pollution, groundwater contamination and pond waste are everyday realities for the region’s workers. Some of the villagers are unaware of the risks involved, but others have noticed the more obvious effects. The toxic extracts that leak into the river have made it taste foul, and workers use a pipeline to import fresh water from another region.
Despite the proven negative effects of selling e-waste to developing countries, it isn’t easy to convince recyclers – even well-intentioned ones – that keeping e-waste inside the U.S. is in their best interest. Without legislation, manufactures don’t have to adopt industry-wide business models based on sustainable electronics rather than ones that are phased out systematically. It’s no coincidence that Apple has released a new iPhone every year since 2007.
So far, 25 states have passed laws to manage e-waste and place the burden of tossed electronics on manufacturers rather than recyclers. One way of doing this is to force producers to offer “takeback” programs, so paying for proper disassembly and disposal becomes the manufacturer’s responsibility. Dell, for example, has been offering a free returns program since 2004, and it audits its partner recyclers to make sure used goods are handled correctly.
Some recycling firms also take it upon themselves to undergo auditing and demonstrate their commitment to safe, local processing of e-waste. Leaving electronics with recyclers that are certified by accredited auditors will increase the likelihood that old devices will be disassembled with minimal harm to workers and the environment. But until the federal government completely outlaws hazardous e-waste dumping, the fate of recycled electronics – and my mother’s old Compaq – may be difficult to control.
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